Milwaukee Shakespeare has already gotten plenty of press on their controversial production of the Bard's tale of a man taming a wild woman. The production features a mostly male cast (16 men and 1 woman,) with all of the female roles given to men in a situation mirroring a New York production of the play that features an all female cast. The play is one of Shakespeare's play-within-a play stories, featuring a drunken man being lead to believe he is a king as a play is performed for him in the style of Shakespeare's time, with men playing women. The post-modern implications of the production are quite overwhelming as it raises the question whether identity is more a matter of circumstance than genetics. The philosophical implications of Milwaukee Shakespeare's production are endless and could easily fill a review ten times the size of this one. The real question for Milwaukee theater goers is, "Is it good?"
The answer is a pretty resounding, "yes." Scenic designer Sergio Villegas' set feels very authentic. It's a Shakespearian theatre stage with footlights facing the audience over to the left. We see façade props facing an empty phantom theatre beyond the stage. The theatre company performs the entire play facing the drunken man who is far at the back of the stage represented in the set. They are facing away from the imaginary empty seats far back to the left of the "real" stage of UWM's Mainstage Theatre.
Actors play actors playing characters. They wear the costume of actors in costume performing Shakespeare's work in Shakespeare's time. The quality of the performances are a bit mixed. By far the most impressive performance of the production comes from Michael Gotch in the role of an actor playing Katherina. Gotch has delved so far into the psyche of Shakespeare's infamous shrew that he gives the role a kind of depth it doesn't normally see.
Being a male actor in a female role, Gotch has much to prove in talent and insight into the character. He delivers a wholly remarkable performance in every important respect. Next to him, Katherina's suitor Petruchio falls a little short. While Michael Shelle's performance as Petruchio is interesting, it's traditionally a male role, so it would appear as though Shelle has less emotional distance to go than Gotch in connecting up with the character he's playing. This is a bit disappointing, as Shelle really did one hell of a job with the character. He's flamboyant, yes . . . and he delivers the cocky, humorous lines of his character really well. He counterweights this with a mean, dramatic streak that is seldom seen in the character, but as interesting as his performance is, it simply does not live up to what Gotch has to do with Katherina.
The Gotch/Shelle Katherina/Petruchio dichotomy is mirrored to a lesser extent in many of the other actors and characters they play. Performances very a great deal. Amidst all of the cross-gender action going on in the play, it is perhaps easiest to overlook the talents of Miki Johnson, the one female in the cast. Johnson plays Biondello, a boy servant. Johnson is remarkably comic in the role, with elegantly whimsical movements, excellent delivery of lines and a stage presence that is particularly difficult to ignore. Johnson quite casually takes over the entire attention of the stage in a number of scenes where the role would normally be only incidental. It might be worth the ticket price just to see her perform a role that is mainly tangential to the rest of the story.
Milwaukee Shakespeare's production of Taming of the Shrew plays now through November 22 at the UWM Mainstage Theatre. Tickets are $30 ($22 for seniors) and can be purchased by calling the box office at (414) 229-4308.